Touching The World: A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith

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Touching The World: A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith

Category: Travel
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A comprehensive and compelling journey through a sightless woman's globe-trotting bike ride.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Panther Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780956497581

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Cathy was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in the summer of 2012 which is why publication of her book Touching the World had to be brought forward to August from the scheduled autumn release date. She bravely soldiered on doing pre and post publication interviews and appearances at motorbike shows and bookshops.

In typical Cathy style she outlived the doctors' expectations and was able to have Christmas with Bernard as his wife - they married on publication day - 20th August 2012. Towards the end her mobility was severely compromised but Bernard said that they still managed to "talk each other's ears off" until she died on 31 January 2013. They were a devoted couple.


Consider the world. There might not be enough of it to go around in some over-crowded places, but there is enough variety in it - and us - for us all to have our own version of it; our own perceptions, experiences and expectations. Those are drastically altered from those of you and I if one is blind, as Cathy Birchall is. But that simple fact did not stop her taking a year out, and starting in August 2008, perch herself on her husband's pillion seat and be taken from one end of the earth to the other and back again.

The book that has finally resulted is an excellent mix of their voices and experiences, and attitudes to what went on. Cathy seems to be the main narrator, as evidenced by Bernard having little italicised subsections, but she is writing in the plural most of the time as the couple lived in each other's pockets for a year, and with his audio description of the world she could absorb a lot of what they passed. Europe is dealt with succinctly, before the problems start, as so many problems lie, in the Middle East. Pakistan and India, down limbs of Asia and across the south coast of Australia, and back up the Pan-American Highway... And I can't let slip too much about the seemingly curtailed ending thereafter.

As you'd expect the journey is a broad selection of brilliant highlights and the more rather-you-than-I. Just because Cathy is sightless does not mean she does not have a whale of a time on safari, and the major section where she seems to be the only blind woman to climb Huayna Picchu is virtuoso. What took me twenty minutes (scrambling down) takes her almost two hours. The nightmarish (for which read the entire subcontinent) is added to by bandit country at night, Latin America being one long spell of money-grubbing, breakdowns repaired by cereal box, and more.

Pleasingly the book is not top-loaded with what it's like for a blind person, and all the response to 'why bother when you're not seeing anything?', nor does the end diffuse into a welter of 'what I learnt about my neighbours on this planet'. The writing is an even and levelled spread of event and emotion, even though most of it seems to have been based on journals, blogs and emails written at the time. There is a tiny adjustment to be made to the rough-and-ready syntax and punctuation, and a couple of amusing typos (glutinous mud is instead gluttonous; where she enthuses C'mon girl! she here calls herself a Common girl!), but essentially, and brilliantly, one is almost forced to become a third person on the bike.

With a whole sub-genre of bike books to join, you might quibble about how much (or little) info is included about the machine, Bertha, that did so much work, but there's too little to disagree with here and too much to admire - not just in the feat itself but in the book that has resulted. This lucky couple put their foot down to speed round some countries, but end by putting their foot down to say they are not brave, extraordinary or lucky, just a regular Jo and Joe getting what they wanted out of life. You might even believe them.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

If you fancy a trip like this yourself, you might consider Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts for some research. The Great Race: The Amazing Round-The-World Auto Race Of 1908 by Gary Blackwood is for all ages, and offers a historical look at a similar trip that was equally remarkable for its time.

Buy Touching The World: A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Touching The World: A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Touching The World: A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Touching The World: A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith at Amazon.com.


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